The Vignellis, Massimo and Lella, stand at the peak of their profession. During the past 20 years, their design output has been prodigious in quantity, far-ranging in media and scope and consistent in excellence. Equally important is the influence they have had and the difference they have made. Their work has led by example. They have contributed to design as individuals. For their accomplishments, Massimo and Lella Vignelli have been chosen to receive the AIGA Gold Medal for 1982—the sixty-second such award in a distinguished series that began in 1920.
Upon the occasion of the major retrospective of the Vignellis' work exhibited at Parsons in 1980, The New York Times critic Paul Goldberger characterized them as “total designers.” They and their office have indeed done it all: industrial and product design, graphic design, book design, magazine and newspaper design, packaging design, interior and exhibit design, furniture design. Massimo and Lella work together in two ways: he concentrates on what they call the “2D”; she handles the “3D”. He's the visionary: “I talk of feelings, possibilities, what a design could be.” She the realist: “I think of feasibility, planning, what a design can be.”
The Vignellis were both born and educated in the industrial, more-European north of Italy, he in Milan and she in Udine, 90 miles away. Massimo's passion was “2D”—graphic design; Lella's family tradition and training were “3D”—architecture. They met at an architects' convention and were married in 1957. Three years later, they opened their first “office of design and architecture” in Milan and designed for Pirelli, Rank Xerox, Olivetti and other design-conscious European firms. But their fascination with the United States, which took root during three years spent here after they were married, eventually grew strong enough to lure them away from Italy permanently. “There is diversity here, and energy, and possibility,” recalls Massimo, “and the need for design.” He cofounded Unimark in 1964, which ballooned and collapsed as the corporate identification boom of the late 1960s hyperventilated, then ran out of breath. In 1972, their present office was formed: Vignelli Associates for two-dimensional design, Vignelli Designs for furniture, objects, exhibitions and interiors.
Not only do the Vignellis design exceeding well, they also think about design. It is not enough that something—a chair, an exhibition, a book, a magazine—looks good and is well designed. The “why” and the “how,” the very process of design itself, must be equally evident and quite beyond the tyranny of individual taste.
“There are three investigations in design,” says Massimo. “The first is the search for structure. Its reward is discipline. The second is the search for specificity. This yields appropriateness. Finally, we search for fun, and we create ambiguity.”
Vignelli design, in both three dimensions and two, is highly architectural in character. Massimo's posters, publications and graphic designs seem to be built in stories, separated by the now-familiar, bold, horizontal rules. Basic geometry is respected. The investigative design process moves from the inside out: “The correct shape is the shape of the object's meaning.” The Vignelli commitment to the correctness of a design has taken their work beyond the mechanical exercise of devising a form best suited to a given function. They've always understood that design itself, in the abstract, could and should be an integral part of function. More than a process and a result, design—good design—is an imperative. “Everything has its own order,” they've said. “You can't take a piece of music and scramble the notes. You can't take a piece of writing and scramble the words. You can't take a space and scramble the chairs around.”
Both in the example set by their work and by their personal commitment of time and energy, design has no advocates more passionate or effective. Both teach, write, lecture, serve on juries and boards, contribute their talent and cast to worthy causes. Unabashedly urban and urbane, their participation in the world of design is enthusiastic, inquiring, generous. The Vignellis are true believers: “When we were young and naïve, we thought we could transform society by providing a better, more designed environment. Naturally, we found that this was not possible. Now, we think more realistically: we see a choice between good design and poor or nondesign. Every society gets the design it deserves. It is our duty to develop a professional attitude in raising the standard of design.”
That sounds serious, and the Vignellis are serious about design. But it is seriousness of purpose conveyed most often through exuberance. When either Massimo or Lella says the word “design,” it is pronounced with a capital “d”: “Design.” As individuals and professionals, their commitment to design and their accomplishments in design have rewarded them well. The Vignelli office continues to thrive and assignments come from an ever more diverse range of clients. Graduates of their firm have set out on their own and established well-respected practices. Only a few of the best and brightest are hired out of the schools each year. Their calendars are crammed; their pace formidable.
“The reward?” asks Massimo, paraphrasing the question. “Why, the reward is to do all this!”
Originally published in AIGA Graphic Design 4, eds. David R. Brown, Wylie Davis, Rose DeNeve. Copyright 1983 by AIGA
Massimo & Lella Vignelli tribute video, courtesy of The One Club.
Antonelli, Paola. “Massimo Vignelli 1931–2014.” Artfourm. Artforum International Magazine. 20 Aug. 2014. Web. 17 May 2016.
Antonelli, Paola. “The Subway and the City: Massimo Vignelli, 1931–2014.” Inside/Out. The Museum of Modern Art. Jun. 2014. Web. 17 May 2016.
Bierut, Michael. “Massimo Vignelli, 1931–2014.” The Design Observer Group. Observer Omnimedia LLC, 27 May 2014. Web. 17 May 2016.
Biert, Michael. “Lella Vignelli.” The Design Observer Group. Observer Omnimedia LLC, 13 Sept. 2010. Web. 17 May 2016.
Brower, Steven. “Happy Birthday, Massimo Vignelli.” Eye on Design. AIGA,15 Jan. 2015. Web. 17 May 2016.
Conradi, Jan. “Design’s Power Couple: Lella and Massimo Vignelli.” Artnet. Artnet Worldwide Corporation, 2 Nov. 2014. Web. 17 May 2016.
Dunne, Carey. “R.I.P. Massimo Vignelli, One of the Greatest 20th Century Designers.” Fastcodesign. Fast Company & Inc., 27 May 2014. Web. 13 May 2016.
Förster, Kim. “Massimo Vignelli: Oppositions, Skyline and the Institute.” Places Journal. Places Journal. Sept. 2010 Web. 17 May 2016.
Glaser, Milton. “Milton Glaser on Massimo Vignelli.” Print. F+W, 13 Jul. 2015. Web. 13 May 2016.
Gleason, Vincent. “National Parks Usa: Massimo Vignelli Redesigns the Publications of the American National Park Service." Graphis / Walter Herdeg, Ed. (1984): 8-23. Print.
Kastrenakes, Jacob. “This is the Timeless Work of the man Who Made NYC’s Iconic Subway Map.” The Verge. Vox Media, 27 May 2014. Web. 13 May 2016.
Langer, Emily. “Massimo Vignelli, Celebrated Designer Whose Work Included NYC Subway Map, Dies at 83.” WashingtonPost.com. The Washington Post, 27 May 2014. Web. 13 May 2016.
Lasky, Julie. “Massimo Vignelli: A Master in the Grammar of Design.” NYTimes.com. The New York Times Company, 28 May 2014. Web. 13 May 2016.
Lupton, Ellen. “Remembering Massimo Vignelli (1931–2014).” Cooper Hewitt. Smithsonian Design Museum, Web. 13 May 2016.
Barlow, Margaret. “Vignelli." Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press, Web. 5 Apr. 2016.
Martin, Douglas. “Massimo Vignelli, Visionary Designer Who Untangled the Subway, Dies at 83.” NYTimes.com. The New York Times Company, 27 May 2014. Web. 13 May 2016.
Mayo, Keenan. “Q&A: Original American Airlines Designer Massimo Vignelli on the Redesigned Logo.” Bloomberg. Bloomberg L.P., 18 Jan. 2013. Web. 13 May 2016.
Merritt, Susan. “Uncovering Upstate New York’s Mecca for Modern Design.” Eye on Design. AIGA, 16 Sept. 2015. Web. 17 May 2016.
Popova, Maria. “Iconic Designer Massimo Vignelli on Intellectual Elegance, Education, and Love.” Brain Pickings. Brain Pickings, 10 Jan. 2013 Web. 13 May 2016.
Remington, R. Roger. “Reputations: Massimo Vignelli.” Eye Magazine 21:83 (2012).
Reynolds, Justin. “What Massimo Vignelli Can Teach Designers Today.” Creative Bloq. Future Publishing Limited, 6 Jun. 2014. Web. 13 May 2016.
Riedel, Mija, and Massimo Vignelli. “An Interview with Massimo Vignelli (1931-2014).” Archives of American Art Journal / Ed.: Paul Cummings. 53 (2014): 78-115. Print.
Seiler, M W. M, and P Kirkham. “Lella Vignelli on Vignelli: Design History, Concepts, and Collaboration." Studies in the Decorative Arts 8 (2001): 139-152. Print.
Shapiro, E. “No More War! Massimo Vignelli, Scourge of the "Anti-Modernists” Retreats.” Print New York 50.4 (1996): 29-36. Print.
Staff Writers. “1982 AIGA Medalists: Massimo and Lella Vignelli.” AIGA Journal of Graphic Design 1.4 (1983). Print.
Stinson, Liz. “3 Classic Graphic Design Works From Herb Lubalin Center’s Stellar Collection.” Eye on Design. AIGA, 1 Oct. 2015. Web. 17 May 2016.
Sudjic, Deyan. “Massimo Vignelli Obituary.” TheGuardian.com. Guardian News and Media Limited, 30 May 2014. Web. 13 May 2016.
“Vignelli.” Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Print.
Vignelli, Massimo. “Cook and Shanosky.” Graphis / Walter Herdeg, Ed. (1982): 114-125. Print.
Vignelli, Massimo. “The Economics of Being a Little Off.” AIGA Journal of Graphic Design 12.4 (1995): 13. Print.
Vignelli, Massimo. “Information Versus Persuasion.” AIGA Journal of Graphic Design 6.2 (1988): 4. Print.
Vignelli, Massimo. “Influences.” AIGA Journal of Graphic Design 1.3 (1983): 4. Print.
Vignelli, Massimo. “Long Live Modernism!.” AIGA Journal of Graphic Design 9.2 (1991): 1. Print.
Vignelli, Massimo. “A Masterpiece!.” AIGA Journal of Graphic Design 14. 2 (1996): 5. Print.
Vignelli, Massimo. “The Pendulum Swings Both Ways.” AIGA Journal of Graphic Design 4.3 (1986): 2. Print.
Walker, Alissa. “RIP Massimo Vignelli: The Iconic Designer Who Shaped a Century.” Blog. Gizmodo. Gizmodo, 27 May 2014. Web. 13 May 2016.
American Institute of Graphic Arts. AIGA Graphic Design USA: 4: The Annual of the American Institute of Graphic Arts. New York: Watson-Guptill, 1983. Print.
Bierut, Michael. Looking Closer: 3. New York: Allworth Press, 1999. Print.
Bierut, Michael. Seventy-Nine Short Essays on Design. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2007. Print.
Bondt, Sara D, and Catherine de Smet. Graphic Design: History in the Writing (1983-2011). London: Occasional Papers, 2012. Print.
Bouabana, Samira, and Angela T. Sperandio. Hall of Femmes: Lella Vignelli. , 2013. Print.
Brook, Tony, Adrian Shaughnessy, Sarah Schrauwen, and Massimo Vignelli. Manuals 1: Design & Identity Guidelines. , 2014. Print.
Butler, Cornelia H, and Alexandra Schwartz. Modern Women: Women Artists at The Museum of Modern Art. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2010. Print.
Carbone, Ken, Raul A. Barreneche, Massimo Vignelli, Steven Heller, and Leslie Smolan. “Dialog”: What Makes a Great Design Partnership. New York: Pointed Leaf Press, 2012. Print.
Celant, Germano. Design: Vignelli. New York: Rizzoli, 1990. Print.
Conradi, Jan. Lella and Massimo Vignelli: Two Lives, One Vision. , 2014. Print.
Doering, Erika, Rachel Switzky, and Rebecca Welz. Goddess in the Details: Product Design by Women. New York, N.Y: Association of Women Industrial Designers, 1994. Print.
Frost, Malcolm, Angharad Lewis, and Aidan Winterburn. Street Talk: The Rise and Fall of the Poster. Mulgrave, Vt: Images Publishing, 2006. Print.
Gerber, Anna. Graphic Design: The 50 Most Influential Graphic Designers in the World. London: A & C Black Publishers, 2010. Print.
Heller, Steven, and Elinor Pettit. Design Dialogues. New York: Allworth Press, 1998. Print.
Heller, Steven, and Marie Finamore. Design Culture: An Anthology of Writing from the AIGA Journal of Graphic Design. New York: Allworth Press, 1997. Print.
Heller, Steven, and Rick Landers. Infographic Designers’ Sketchbooks. , 2014. Print.
Hurlburt, Allen. The Grid: A Modular System for the Design and Production of Newspapers, Magazines, and Books. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Co, 1978. Print.
Hustwit, Gary. Helvetica/Objectified/Urbanized: the Complete Interviews. S.l.: s.n., 2015. Print.
Interview: Massimo Vignelli. New York: Baruch College, Graphics Program in the Art Dept, 1984. Print.
Laufer, David C. Dialogues with Creative Legends and Aha Moments in a Designer's Career. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, 2012. Internet resource.
Laundy, Peter, and Massimo Vignelli. Graphic Design for Non-Profit Organizations. New York, N.Y: American Institute of Graphic Arts, 1980. Print.
Lloyd, Peter B, Massimo Vignelli, and Mark Ovenden. Vignelli Transit Maps. Rochester, New York: RIT Cary Graphic Arts Press, 2012.
Lommen, Mathieu. The Book of Books: 500 Years of Graphic Innovation. London: Thames & Hudson, 2012. Print.
McQuiston, Liz. Women in Design: A Contemporary View. New York: Rizzoli, 1988. Print.
Millman, Debbie. How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer. New York: Allworth Press, 2007. Print.
Pedersen, B Martin. Design Annual 2015. , 2014. Print.
Roberts, Caroline. Graphic Design Visionaries. , 2015. Print.
Russell, Beverly. Women of Design: Contemporary American Interiors. New York: Rizzoli, 1992. Print.
Vignelli, Massimo, and Lella Vignelli. Design Is One. Mulgrave, Vic: Images Pub. Group, 2004. Print.
Vignelli, Massimo, and Lella Vignelli. Design: Vignelli. New York: Rizzoli, 1981. Print.
Vignelli, Massimo. Designed by: Lella Vignelli. n.p., n.d. PDF. Web. 17 May 2016.
Vignelli, Massimo, Bob Noorda, Michael Bierut, and Christopher Bonanos. Graphics Standards Manual. , 2014. Print.
Vignelli, Massimo. Vignelli from A to Z. Mulgrave, Vic: Images, 2007. Print.
Vignelli, Massimo. The Vignelli Canon. Baden: Lars Müller, 2010. Print.
Vignelli, Massimo. Vignelli Drawings: A Collection of Sketches for Book Design. , 2014. Print.
Wurman, Richard S, Massimo Vignelli, and Christine Rae. Forty Years of Design: Knoll International. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1979. Print.
Exhibitions and events
Designing Modern Women 1890–1990. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. 5 Oct. 2013 to 19 Oct. 2014. Exhibition. Web. 17 May 2016.
Timeless Massimo Vignelli. Disseny Hub Barcelona, 8 Jun. to 31 Aug. 2015. Exhibition. BCD Barcelona Centre de Disseny, n.d. Web. 16 May 2016.
Vignelli, Massimo. Grids: Their Meaning and Use for Federal Designers : Based on a Presentation to the Second Studio Seminar for Federal Graphic Designers, Nov. 10, 1976. Washington, D.C.?: National Endowment for the Arts, 1978. Print.
Websites and collections
AIGA Design Archives. AIGA, n.d. Web 13 May 2016.
“Helvetica.” Gary Hustwit. Gary Hustwit. 2007. Web. 13 May 2016.
“Lella Vignelli.” The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Web. 17 May 2016.
“Massimo Vignelli.” The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Web. 17 May 2016.
“Massimo Vignelli.” 2001 SEGD Fellow. Society for Experiential Graphic Design. Web. 13 May 2016.
“Massimo Vignelli.” Designers & Books. Designers & Books, n.d. Web. 17 May 2016.
Vignelli Associates. Vignelli Associates, n.d. Web. 16 May 2016.
“Vignelli Collection.” Vignelli Center for Design Studies. Rochester, New York., n.d. Web 16 May 2016.
“Vignelli, Lella.” Artist File: Miscellaneous Uncataloged Material. The Museum of Modern Art, n.d.. Archival material.
“Vignelli, Massimo.” Artist File: Miscellaneous Uncataloged Material. The Museum of Modern Art, n.d.. Archival material.
Vignelli, Massimo. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority Revised Map of Rapid Transit Facilities of New York City Transit Authority. New York: The Authority, 1977.
Audio and video
“100 Years of Design that Assists: New York Subways, 1966.” Celebrate Design. AIGA, 2014. Web. 13 May 2016.
“100 Years of Design that Informs: Massimo Vignelli, AIGA Medalist, 1982.” Celebrate Design. AIGA, 2014. Web. 13 May 2016.
The Artist Toolbox. “The Artist Toolbox–Massimo & Lella Vignelli.” Vimeo. 8 May 2013. 17 May 2016. Online video.
Big Think. “Big Think Interview with Massimo Vignelli.” YouTube. 23 Apr. 2012. Web. 13 May 2016.
Debbie Millman. “Massimo Vignelli.” SoundCloud. Design Matters, 17 Sept. 2010. Web. 13 May 2016.
Brew, Kathy, Roberto Guerra. Design Is One: Lella & Massimo Vignelli. , 2012. Internet resource.
Caduff, Reto. The Visual Language of Herbert Matter. S.l.: Pixiu Films, 2011.
Diamonstein, Barbaralee, Massimo Vignelli, Lella Vignelli, and David Gordon. Interior Design, the New Freedom. , 1986.
Ghitis, Danny. “Massimo’s Last Letters.” NYTimes.com. The New York Times Company. 28 May 2014. Web. 13 May 2016.
Hershon, Eila, Roberto Guerra, and Wibke Von Bonin. By Design: Volume 6. Munich: RM Productions. Production, 1980.
Hustwit, Gary, Shelby Siegel, and Luke Geissbuhler. Helvetica: A Documentary Film. Brooklyn, NY: Plexifilm, 2007.
Madere, John. “Massimo Vignelli.” Vimeo. 25 Aug. 2010. Web. 13 May 2016.
Sudjic, Deyan, and Massimo Vignelli. The House in the Twentieth Century; Interior Design. Sydney, N.S.W: ABC Radio National, 1999. Sound recording.
“Transportation Nation. Vignelli, Designer of Famous Subway Map, Defends His Version Over These Others (Images).” WNYC. New York Public Radio, 21 Dec. 2012. Web. 13 May 2016.
Vignelli, Lella, Massimo Vignelli, Eila Hershon, Roberto Guerra, and Wibke Von Bonin. What Is Design? London. England: RM Productions, 1989.
Vignelli, Massimo. Design Vignelli. Sydney: University of New South Wales College of Fine Arts, 1991.
Vignelli, Massimo. Vignelli from A to Z. Montréal: Université de Montréal, École de design industriel, 1993.
Vignelli, Massimo, Lella Vignelli, Barry Bedford, and Michael L. Washington. Industrial Design Excellence Interviews: Massimo and Lella Vignelli. McLean, Va.: Projection Inc. for the Design Foundation, 1985.
Vignelli, Massimo, Lella Vignelli, and Beverly Russell. Vignelli A to Z. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kendall College School of Art & Design, 1995.
Zuckerman, Andrew, and Alex Vlack. Wisdom: A Film by Andrew Zuckerman. United States: Andrew Zuckerman Studio, 2010.